Carrie started to drive toward her lake house, then saw a sign for the Winter Haven Library. Soft golden light still glowed in the small brick building’s windows and drew her like a beacon.
How long had it been since she’d been able to sit down and read an entire book from start to finish? Enjoy the story without interruptions from servants, visitors, events? The thought of doing something so decadent as just reading, filled her with a warm sense of anticipation. She parked, then stepped inside the building and inhaled the slightly musty, slightly dusty scent of lots and lots of books. She’d hated boarding school—hated the boring classes, the endless rules, but most of all, hated being away from the wild land that surrounded Uccelli’s castle—but she had loved the library at St. Mary’s. It had been massive, and filled with every book one could imagine, and had made the boarding school experience more tolerable for a girl who would have rather been home in her beloved vineyards than memorizing algebraic equations. She’d spent her free moments curled up in a comfortable chair, lost in worlds completely unlike her own.
That’s what she needed now. A good book, something she could take back to that little nook in the lake house, and enjoy with a cup of hot tea while the soft breezes from the water whispered around her. The prospect hurried her steps, and she headed into the first book-filled room she saw.
Almost immediately she realized she’d entered the children’s section by mistake. She started to turn around when she heard a male voice, a familiar low baritone. “Just one more book, Belle. Then we need to get home.”
“Daddy, I wanna read a princess story.”
A sigh. “What about this one? It’s about George Washington growing up.”
A matching sigh from much younger lungs. “No. I don’t want that one. It’s yucky. Read me a princess story.”
Carrie grinned. She recognized that stubborn streak and had heard that defiance in herself. Carrie took a couple steps forward, and peeked around the bookshelf. Her gaze lighted first on a little girl with a headful of blonde curls, spilling around her shoulders like a halo. She had on a ruffled pink and white dress, and plastic glittery shoes with a tiny heel. She had her little fists perched on her hips and was glaring at the man before her—
A very exasperated looking Daniel Reynolds. Carrie jerked back, but not fast enough. “Annabelle…” Daniel’s voice trailed off when he glanced up and noticed Carrie standing there.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” she said. Was she stammering? She never stammered. “I, uh, walked into the children’s area by mistake. I didn’t expect to see…well, see you here.”
His chiseled features met hers with a direct, intent stare. No surprise, just…assessment. “Nor did I expect to see you.”
“I’ll…I’ll leave you to your book.”
The voice behind Carrie startled her and she spun around, to find one of her customers from earlier that day. The woman stepped forward, tugging her husband with her. “You’re the princess, aren’t you? The one from the wine shop?”
Carrie nodded and bit back a smile. People got such a chuckle out of her royal status. Carrie, who had lived as much out of the castle’s shadow as she could, found the whole thing amusing. “It’s nice to see you again.”
The woman yanked on her husband’s arm. “See, I told you she was here in Winter Haven. A real, honest-to-goodness princess.”
The little girl with Daniel stared up at Carrie, her blue eyes wide and curious. “You’re a princess? A real one?”
Carrie bent down slightly. “I am.”
The little girl’s mouth opened into a tiny O. “Wow.” She tilted her head and gave Carrie a curious look. “Where’s your crown?”
“Back home in Uccelli, where I come from.”
“But don’t princess always hafta wear a crown, so everybody knows they’re special?”
“Princesses are special every day, Annabelle.” Carrie gave the girl a smile, then turned to her customer. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“You too.” The woman beamed. “We come to Winter Haven every summer for vacation. Have been for more than twenty years. I meant to tell you that I met your mother years ago.”
“Uh-huh. She was telling people she was just an ordinary vacationer, but we knew better, didn’t we?” she elbowed her husband, who grunted a yes. “She loved this place.”
“She did, indeed,” Carrie said.
“I don’t blame her.” The woman let out a little chuckle and winked. “Maybe you’ll have the same amount of fun.”
Carrie smiled. “Maybe.” She exchanged a little bit of small talk before the woman and her husband left, promising to stop at By the Glass again before their vacation ended.
“Well, well,” Daniel said after the couple left the room. “Seems the princess angle is good for sales.”
She bristled. “That isn’t why I told people who I am.”
He arched a brow. “It isn’t?”
“Of course not.” She glared at him. “You always see the worst in people, don’t you?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because you people are jaded and bitter and think everyone is lying.”
His face hardened and she knew she’d struck a nerve. “Well perhaps if people didn’t tell us lies all the time, reporters wouldn’t be so jaded.”
“Here, read this one.” The little girl thrust a book between them. Then she leaned in closer to her father and lowered her voice. “And Daddy, you’re not supposed to fight with a princess.”
The lines in Daniel’s face softened, and the hard edge disappeared. He bent down to his daughter’s level and took the book from her hands. “You’re right, Belle.”
She beamed, then spun on those plastic pink shoes and thrust out a hand toward Carrie. “I’m Annabelle. I’m not a princess, but I wanna be one really bad.”
Carrie laughed, and shook the little girl’s hand. Five fingers, so delicate, so soft, and so reminiscent of herself and her sisters. “I’m Carlita Santaro, but you can call me Carrie.”
“Princess Carrie.” Annabelle glanced up at Carrie, all smiles and apple cheeks. “I like that name.”
“Me too.” Carrie glanced at Daniel. He’d tamed his go-for-the-jugular reporter side for now. But how long would that last? In the end, she knew where his type gravitated—to the story. Regardless of the consequences or fallout. But a part of her wanted to know if a guy who could look at his daughter with such love in his eyes could be different. Still, her instincts told her to keep her distance. “I should go.”
“Stay,” Annabelle said. “’Cuz, Daddy’s going to read a story and he’s really good at reading stories.”
“Oh, I don’t think I should—“
But the little girl had already grabbed Carrie’s hand and was tugging her in Daniel’s direction. “You can sit ova there. I can sit ova here. And Daddy,” the girl stopped in front of her father, propped one fist on her hip, and gave him a stern look, “you can read.”
Daniel let out a laugh, then sent Carrie an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. Annabelle can be…demanding.”
“Daddy! I’m not ‘manding. I’m nice.”
He chuckled again. “Yes, Belle, you are nice. The nicest little girl in the world.”
Annabelle beamed and the love between father and daughter seemed to fill the small colorful space. This other side of Daniel Reynolds surprised Carrie, but she refused to soften her stance about an interview about herself. She’d seen a hundred times how trusting someone from the media could turn around and bite her. Hadn’t they been painting her as the “extra” princess for years? As if the royal family could discard her because she’d never be queen.
How did she know this guy wouldn’t do the same? Or worse, just make something up?
No, if she allowed him into her world, it would be to talk about Uccelli’s wines. And nothing more. And all the while she’d be wary, and not trust him.
But as she watched him interact with his daughter, a part of her wanted to believe he was different. That she could trust him.
“Come on,” Annabelle said, tugging on Carrie’s hand again. “You gotta sit down or Daddy won’t read. It’s a…” she glanced at her father for the word.
“Rule,” Daniel supplied. Then he shrugged and smiled again. “Sorry, but it is.”
Carrie thought of leaving. Then she caught Daniel’s smile again, and something about it hit her square in the gut. He had a lopsided smile, the kind that gave his face character and depth, and had her following Annabelle to the square of carpet on Daniel’s right. As soon as Carrie lowered herself onto the small space, Annabelle scrambled over to his opposite side, plunked down on her bottom and plopped her chin into her hands. “Read my story, Daddy.”
He arched a brow.
“Okay.” He turned the cover of the book and then shot Carrie a glance. “Seems Belle has picked The Princess and the Pea. You know, the fairy tale about the woman they suspect is masquerading as a princess.”
“I love that story,” Annabelle said, completely oblivious to the hidden conversation between the adults. “’Cuz it’s got a princess in it. I love princesses.”
“Then by all means, I think you should read it,” Carrie said to Daniel.
“I think I should, too. Refresh my memory.” He leaned back against a beanbag chair, and Annabelle curled up next to him, laying her blonde head on his chest so she could see the pictures as he read.
The father-daughter picture before her filled Carrie with a rush of sentiment. On the rare occasions when her mother had been home at night and around at bedtime, she’d made it a rule to read the girls at least one story, sometimes two. Always a fairy tale, because she said those were the kind of stories that taught you to dream. Carrie leaned against the bookcase, as enthralled as the little girl in Daniel’s arms.
She’d stay just a minute, no more, and only because Annabelle had asked her. She didn’t want to intrude. Or get any closer to this man.
“Then she took twenty mattresses and laid them on top of the pea,” Daniel read, his quiet voice seeming to spin a magical web, “and then twenty elder-down beds on top of the mattresses.”
“Twenty?” Annabelle asked and fluttered her fingers as if she was counting that high. “That’s lots.”
“It is indeed,” Daniel said, then turned another page. “On this the princess had to lie all night. In the morning she was asked how she had slept.” He paused. “What do you think, pumpkin? Was she a princess after all, or another imposter?”
“What’s a ‘poster?”
“Well, Belle, that’s a person who pretends to be something they’re not.” He closed the book, glanced at Carrie and arched a brow. “Would you agree, Miss Santaro?”
“I think lots of people pretend to be something they aren’t.”
“You have a point,” he said. Their gazes met and for a moment, it felt like détente. Like they were starting something. What, Carrie wasn’t sure.
“Daddy, you gotta read. I wanna know if the princess lives happy ever after. And so does Princess Carrie.”
Daniel glanced at Carrie, and arched a brow. A teasing grin darted across his face. Was he…flirting with her? Or merely playing into Annabelle’s game. “Well, Princess Carrie? Do you want me to keep reading?”
She waved toward the book. “Please do, Mr. Reynolds. I’m dying to hear how this one ends.”
His gaze met hers and something hot pooled inside her. “I am too,” he said. Then he opened the book again and began to read.